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What, exactly, is an “icon?”

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines an icon simply as “an image; a figure.”

So, who is Darth Vader? Is this character an “icon?” He is definitely a figure in Star Wars; a prevalent one at that. But, what is his “image?”

This blog entry idea came about during a conversation I had with a very dear friend and fellow fangirl. We were discussing the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII movie. One of the things we debated was whether or not the character of Darth Vader is viewed the same now, after 35+ years of Star Wars being part of our cinematic history, as he was when he first exploded on the scene aboard Tantive IV in “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.”

Generation after generation has experienced the character of Darth Vader in some way, shape, form or another. There are so many examples from which to choose: Besides the movies, there are video games, The Clone Wars, Legos and endless books – both EU and movie canon. Then there’s Robot Chicken, which aims to poke fun at our beloved saga in a way that fans seem to love (myself included). Also, we have the book series by writer Jeffrey Brown: “Darth Vader and Son,” “Vader’s Little Princess,” and “Goodnight Darth Vader” (set to be debut at San Diego Comic Con this summer).  These books ask the question (as quoted from Amazon.com) “What if Darth Vader took an active role in raising his son? What if “Luke, I am your father” was just a stern admonishment from an annoyed dad?”

How does all of this media saturation affect the perception of Darth Vader’s character, if at all?

Most people who have never seen a Star Wars movie (*gasp*) can usually identify Vader’s character by name, albeit sometimes a bit incorrectly: “Dark Vader” has come across my ears from time to time!

I always seem to have many, many questions as I ponder the complexities of the subject matter I choose…

Has Vader become an “afterthought,” the “butt of a joke?”

Do people actually identify him as Anakin Skywalker, or do they see these two characters as separate entities?

What is his image in the mind of society?

How will all of this affect the perception and attitude toward him as we anticipate a new era of Star Wars, if there is any effect at all?

It was this set of questions that inspired me to do a bit of research. As a teacher, research has just been something I’ve always been used to doing, and it seems natural to turn to it as a way to get some answers, even in this particular instance!

I surveyed close to 50 people. The ages of the participants were anywhere from six years old, all the way up to probably close to 60 (I didn’t dare ask…!).

My question, simply, was: Who is Darth Vader?”

The replies both surprised – and reinforced – what I thought I might find out. What was most interesting to me was the types of replies within particular age groups.

Because I teach high school, I have a great, built-in audience to use for that age group. Most of the responses from the 14-18 age group were what I would call “classic responses” – those that describe Vader as a “bad guy”, or, as one young lady said: “Dark and creepy and mean.” Several responses also included things like “he has a strange voice,” or “he breathes weird.”

Some of the responses were pretty intuitive and layered, or just plain entertaining! Here are a few of my favorites:

“A deeply angered Jedi who let his bond with the Force slip to the dark side to place revenge upon those who did him wrong.” (Male, age 17)

“Darth Vader, he’s the guy you can just look at a picture and picture some awesome evil music with. In my opinion, what good things Anakin did and all he loved were destroyed with his human body as they scorched under lava. He’s no longer the young hero, he is now all that is malicious and evil. However, in a way you’ve gotta like him for what he used to be, and all he’s bringing to the table!” (Male, age 17)

“Full of anger/sorrow/loss. Allowed his passions to destroy who he was/tried to be.” (Male, age 16)

“Darth Vader makes me think of death and destruction. I think of evil things happening to innocent people.” (Female, age 18)

“I just think he’s a scary man with a voice that sounds like he’s been smoking for 30 years.” (Female, age 16)

And the one that gave me the chills…

…one word…

“Misunderstood.” (Male, age 15)

It was my summation that this age group, if they had exposure to the various Star Wars media, understood that Vader was actually Anakin Skywalker at one point in his life, and that he was a “good guy turned bad.” Interestingly enough, it was also this age group that had the most respondents who had never seen any of the Star Wars movies.

Of the “older crowd,” (ages 30 and up), most identified Vader as the villain. I only had one or two responses that mentioned Anakin at all. A majority of the respondents mentioned that Vader is Luke’s father. Most of those in this group had at least seen part of one of the movies, but there were a few (all women in their 30’s), who had never seen any of them.

My favorite response from this age group was:

“My initial thought was that Darth Vader is the leader if the military arm of the Empire in George Lucas’s Star Wars. He’s also Luke Skywalker’s father. Upon further thought, Darth Vader is also Anakin Skywalker, who was once training to be a Jedi knight before turning to the Dark Side of the Force.”

Of both these age groups, the movie quote I saw most often was “I am your father.” Still a zinger after all these years!

Last, but not least, are the younglings. Those under age 10. I was most interested to hear what these kiddos would say, mainly because I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that, at both Star Wars Celebrations I’ve attended, most children will run right up to someone dressed in full Darth Vader cosplay and want a hug, or at least to be close to him. Wouldn’t one think he would be scary? I’ve seen more children scream when placed on Santa’s lap than in the presence of this Dark Lord of the Sith!

Many of the younglings I was able to survey either didn’t know who Darth Vader was at all, or saw him simply as a bad guy. No mention of Anakin Skywalker whatsoever. Except for one little princess, age 6, who just so happens to be living in a house where Star Wars fandom is a way of everyday life (get ready, this is priceless…)

“He’s Anakin, and when he turned mean he captured his own daughter. He fought his own son. And his troops got killed by Leia, Han, and Luke Skywalker. He turned to the dark side because he was mad at Obi-Wan. Padme died.”

…Major “Awwwwwwww Factor”!

So, what does all this tell us about the “image” of Darth Vader?

It means this character is still intriguing us after all these years, no matter what age we are or what experience we’ve had with him.

I did reflect upon my own ideas and perceptions of Darth Vader as well.  If you would have asked my 7-year-old self about Vader, I would have told you that he is evil, but that he had to listen to someone even more evil than he was.  I always had the feeling that he was being controlled. After all these years, and with each evolution of Vader’s character, I have built my own layers of understanding this most complex of characters. I doubt that evolution will ever end, so long as Star Wars keeps expanding and unfolding with each new generation of fans.

So, as we move forward to Episode VII, it will be interesting to see how the aftermath of Vader’s reign – as well as the legacy of Anakin Skywalker – play into the new era of Star Wars movies.

This was a fun exercise for me! I really enjoyed reaching out to a variety of people and sharing my fandom with them in the process.

I’m very eager to hear what all of you have to say!

May the Force be with you…always,
Jay

(Feel free to contact me directly at jayk@coffeewithkenobi.com)

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15 Comments

  1. pambruchwalski
    April 18, 2014 at 16:00 Reply

    Love this entry…not surprising.

    Wow. There were some great responses there. Unexpected depth, actually. Love the kid who said, “Misunderstood.” I’m pitching my tent in his camp.

    I always find it fascinating that so many of my peers (those in the way older crowd) can only see Darth Vader as a villain. I often wonder why. The sheer fact that this character has endured for so long, through the course of going-on-forty years, should indicate that he is so much more than a villain. The prequel trilogy was made to give life to the man behind the mask, to enrich that man’s tragic story, to bring Anakin Skywalker to life. I may be in the minority in my age group, but Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker have been deeply intertwined for me since the first time I saw Vader’s hobbled TIE fighter drift off into the GFFA in A New Hope. Who Anakin Skywalker really is has been almost a lifelong fascination for me.

    This is such a great observation, Jay: “I’ve seen more children scream when placed on Santa’s lap than in the presence of this Dark Lord of the Sith!” I chuckled for a moment and then thought, “Wow. She’s right.” Why?

    Is it because children worry about being judged by Santa while they inherently know that they, we, are the ones in the position to judge Darth Vader? Is it because they’re afraid that they have been bad when they know that Darth Vader is the bad one? Is it something as easy as not being able to see the man’s face? It’s a fascinating question.

    For me, I recall being at C4 and getting my picture taken with that one really tall Vader who roamed the convention floor. I also recall being ever-so-slightly hesitant. Perhaps it’s because there will always be that part of me that wonders, “Who is Darth Vader?”

    1. Jay Krebs
      April 18, 2014 at 21:39 Reply

      You know, Pam, I was surprised by the fixation of Vader as villain in the older age group as well. You’re so right in pointing out that “we” are the ones who have been exposed to this character the longest. I guess it just goes to prove that first impressions really do last!

      I remember being introduced to the fact that Vader was Anakin Skywalker. It was when I read the novelization of ANH for the fist time – I think I was around 11 or 12. It wasn’t until then that I realized he had lead a much, much different existence before donning the title of Darth Vader.

      Excellent observations about children, and Santa vs. Vader! You know me, I love to psychoanalyze stuff! I agree with you…it seems as though there’s a different level of…what? Acceptance? Hmmm….continue to ponder this, I will…

      I remember that Vader dude at CIV, too! I’ve always felt a bit of strange apprehension next to cosplayers like that, or like the stormtroopers…there’s just that uncertainty factor!!

      Thanks so much for your reply! I know how crazy things are for you right now, so I appreciate you taking the time for this!! 🙂

  2. Becca Benjamin
    April 18, 2014 at 16:03 Reply

    Love it! Vader gets “Surveyed!”
    Awesome, AWESOME job 🙂 Kudos to you for doing all that leg work, girl…had to be amazing to hear all the responses.
    My question to you is, “How did you approach each individual?” Did you just go up to random people and say, “Hey, I like SW. Can I ask you a question?” lol! Just curious. 🙂

    So, what comes to mind when I think of Vader?
    Hmmmm…. some how I think we’ve discussed this a million times and twice over 😉
    Like you, it changes as I age…and experience NEW SW. Vader is all of the above: Dark, Mysterious, Scary, Angry, Evil (in the way of committing evil acts), *misunderstood* (my favorite description), but mostly (IMO) he is sad and truly lost.

    As Luke so famously says, “It is the name of your true self. You’ve only forgotten.”

    Speaking of quotes, OMG! This one is the best! :

    “He’s Anakin, and when he turned mean he captured his own daughter. He fought his own son. And his troops got killed by Leia, Han, and Luke Skywalker. He turned to the dark side because he was mad at Obi-Wan. Padme died.”

    Ok, this made my heart soar! Quite the little Jedi Padawan in the making 😉 The Padawan is right! From a certain point of view 😉 I mean, seriously, everything she said DID happen. “Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.”-Yoda

    As for the women in their 30’s who have never seen Star Wars *GASP!* Well, they should made too! Like, Seriously? Gives us women a bad name lol!

    Now, how will Vader’s memory be represented in the next saga? I for one, can’t wait to find out! Hopefully he won’t have been forgotten….that would be sad on so many levels. I can only hope that, Luke sheds light on his father’s name and that “The Chosen One” is referenced with an homage/tribute to the Hero he once was. After all, his Legacy Lives on….

    Funtastic Blog, Jay!

    1. Jay Krebs
      April 18, 2014 at 21:50 Reply

      Glad you enjoyed this one!! I know how much you LOVE Vader/Anakin!

      The way I did the surveys was really not that “scientific.” With my students, I just used time at the end of a couple of different class periods and asked them to write down their responses on a piece of scrap paper and hand it in as they left class. I asked some of the teachers on staff at my school, too – I put little questionnaires in their mailboxes, then gave them candy in return if they replied (teachers like candy! 🙂 ) I also asked them to ask their own younglings at home for a response, so I was able to get two for the price of one on that! For yet others, I either asked personally or e-mailed people I knew. Voila – research!!

      I think the main reason why the 30-ish women I surveyed were “out of the loop” of SW is because the prequels came out when they were in their 20s – you know, college, etc. So unless they were kind of “brought up” on SW, they sort of missed the heyday of the populatity of it. Of course, this is just a VERY small cross-section of society, and should no way be representative of 30-ish women as a whole!

      Great response from the little princess, right? You know her 🙂

      I, too am eager – and also apprehensive of – the way Episode VII will handle Vader/Anakin. I’m hoping his legacy will be one of a cautionary tale, yet one that the new generation can reflect on with a sense of pride in Anakin Skywalker as well. After all, he WAS the Chosen One, and he did do so many amazing, heroic, selfless things during his time as a Jedi.

      Great to hear your thoughts 🙂

  3. Erica
    April 18, 2014 at 17:54 Reply

    I love that you surveyed so many people to see what they thought of when asked about Vader. I almost feel inspired to do my own survey just to see what I hear. You know I think he is such a fascinating character, and it will be very interesting to see a movie without him–the first SW without Anakin or Vader ever. I wonder how his character arc will impact the galaxy we see when Episode VII comes out?

    Also, I must say, I was very impressed by that little six year old girl’s insightful comments about Anakin/Vader. I wonder who her mother is…oh, right, it’s me! 😉

    Thanks for another great entry, Jay. These are so much fun to read.

  4. Jay Krebs
    April 18, 2014 at 21:57 Reply

    Hey, girl! If you end up doing that survey, I’d LOVE to know what you find out for comparison – especially since you live in a somewhat different socioeconomic climate than I!!

    LIke I told Becca, Episode VII will be interesting indeed. I’m going to be going into that one with bated breath, for sure!

    Yes, that girl of yours is definitely a chip off the ol’ block – savvy in her perceptions and empathetic to the most complex of characters 😉 You have taught her well!!

    I’m seriously SO happy you are enjoying these rants of mine – I love hearing from you!

  5. pambruchwalski
    April 18, 2014 at 22:13 Reply

    D’uh. Of COURSE the perceptive 6-year-old was padawanakinside1…! Missed that.

    Becca, where is your most recent entry?? Aren’t yours usually right near Jay’s? I totally missed it.

  6. Jeff M
    April 19, 2014 at 00:24 Reply

    Great blog, from concept to execution! Something struck me as I was reading it. My generation (i’m 37) is in the middle of the first “Star Wars generation” so we first knew Vader as the “big bad” of Star Wars. Only at the tail-end of Jedi did we see that it was Emporer who was pulling Vader’s strings, and that he was conflicted.

    The prequels gave us Vader’s backstory, which took him from “big bad” to “tragic figure” and gave him more nuance and psychology. Some people don’t deal well with change. The same people who like Boba Fett because “he’s just a bad, bad dude” are the same ones who resent that this imposing Dark Lord of the Sith is really just a whiny brat who couldn’t handle his crush on an older woman. I feel like that is where we will see the biggest difference between us and the younger people who have known the prequels and the OT on equal footing, and that bore itself out in your surveys.

    As for the kid who said “Misunderstood”…I think your next blog should be an interview with that person, I’d love to hear how their mind works.

    Keep up the great work, and May the Force be with you!

    1. Jay Krebs
      April 19, 2014 at 07:36 Reply

      Thanks, Jeff!

      It’s a good point you make to say people don’t often deal well with change. I think that’s one reason, in general, I think many “purists” of the Original Trilogy were/are unaccepting of the Prequels to one extent or another, albeit the character of Jar Jar (which, personally I think fans just need to get over), the casting of Hayden Christensen as Anakin, etc.

      I appreciate you stopping by!

  7. Melinda
    April 19, 2014 at 23:38 Reply

    What a fun activity! 🙂
    I must admit that I always have seen Vader as a bad guy – in the biggest sense. Maybe it’s the black garb, deep, throaty voice, machine-assisted breathing — and that red lightsaber. Just like the tell-tale black hat the “bad guy” cowbows wore, Vader’s ensemble helped set the stage.
    Adding fuel to the fire was his quick-tempered response to Motti’s cynicism regarding that “ancient religion”. Act first. Ask questions later. If that isn’t enough to convince one of Vader’s “badness”, then how about his first malevolent act aboard the Tantive IV? Vader had no qualms about snapping the captain’s neck when Captain Antilles did not provide Vader with the information the Dark Lord of the Sith was after. Shall I continue? He had no remorse about cutting down the best friend he ever had. He had no reservations about torturing Princess Leia (his daughter 😉 ).
    The prequels showed who Vader was before he turned to evil. Anakin was misunderstood. I’ll grant you that. Anakin also was his own worse enemy. At his core, Anakin was a good person … who was led down a dark path.
    Vader? Yes, he is an icon. He is the image of evil … who was redeemed by the love of his son. 🙂

    What a great blog, Jay. Always intriguing. Always thought-provoking. Always awesome. 🙂

    1. Melinda
      April 20, 2014 at 18:28 Reply

      CowBOYS, that is. 😉 Oops.

      1. jaymo2yp
        April 23, 2014 at 20:37 Reply

        Great to hear your thoughts, as always, dear Melinda! Hoping you are continuing to feel better day by day!

        It’s true that the image was definitely further supplemented by the “garb”, as you put it – I guess if you’re the bad guy, you need to look the part, to be sure!

  8. Lisa
    April 23, 2014 at 11:01 Reply

    I see Darth Vader as a villain – from the moment in Revenge of the Sith when he swears allegiance to the Dark Side and then heads off to butcher younglings. That’s so much more than being “misunderstood.” That was evil – pure and simple. Anakin could be misunderstood, but Vader? Nuh-uh. To me, they’re two separate characters – up until his redemption in Return of the Jedi when he sacrifices himself to save his son – and you even see his shell crack a bit prior to that when he says to Luke “It is too late for me, son” (one of the saddest lines of dialogue ever and the first time I feel pity for Vader).

    Which is why I appreciate the alteration at the end of ROTJ. I know people moan about Hayden replacing Sebastian – but it makes sense when you view Anakin and Vader as separate characters. The years Vader stole from Anakin are restored as he becomes one with the Force. Fitting, IMO.

    So…. Anakin is a misunderstood (and somewhat selfish) young man – as Melinda says, a basically good person who was his own worst enemy.

    Vader…. Bad guy who kills and tortures without a second thought. A very cool bad guy, I’ll grant…. but a bad guy nonetheless. (That’s never stopped my from having Vader action figures and stuff, though 😉 )

  9. jaymo2yp
    April 23, 2014 at 20:42 Reply

    Very well-put, Lisa! I agree with every sentiment you’ve shared here!

    So true – all of the things Vader did during his service to the Dark Side were pure evil…from the slaughtering of the younglings, to the destruction of Alderaan, to the torturing of Han…the list goes on and on. We certainly cannot excuse these actions. Ever. But it does help to know who he was BEFORE, in order to help explain it.

    I love that line in ROTJ, too!! One of my very favorite scenes in the entire saga is on that bridge. It’s interesting, though, that I never truly appreciated that scene until I became an adult – and mother.

    I also agree with the alteration at the end of ROTJ! Fitting, as you put it. Indeed. As for those who don’t like it – you know, haters are gonna hate. Can’t change that!

    Thanks so much for weighing in on this one! 🙂

  10. Joe2
    May 8, 2014 at 10:10 Reply

    Lisa said it perfectly! I view Vader and Anakin as two separate people, even with Vader’s redemption. Anakin was the whiney, brat who was manipulated by almost everyone he knew. Vader was evil, imposing figure who did evil things. Obi-Wan says it perfectly, “…He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader.”

    I’d be curious to know what the 30+ group’s *first* thought of Vader was when he first appeared in the Tantive IV.

    Great Blog!

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